President, Know Thyself

WaPo’s Cohen on the Afghan war as a presidential self-actualization tool

There are lots of ways of thinking about foreign policy: not just political labels of recent vintage like “neoconservatism” and “liberal interventionist,” but bona fide, academy-approved approaches like world-systems theory, functionalism, and rationalism. The Wikipedia page for international relations theory rattles off, in one sentence, constructivism, institutionalism, Marxism, even something called neo-Gramscianism.

Then, of course, there is the Richard Cohen approach: foreign policy as mystical quest for self-knowledge. Or, to put it another way: How the President Can Find Himself by Going to War.

That’s the upshot of Cohen’s column in today’s Washington Post, in which he argues that Barack Obama’s willingness to send more troops to die for an increasingly unpopular and potentially fruitless war effort is a test of his “backbone.”

But that’s not all it is, Cohen tells us. The debate over Afghanistan is also a forum to address some other questions that are swirling around the man in the White House:

The first, and to my mind most important, is whether Obama knows who he is.

This business of self-knowledge is no minor issue.

Actually, no. When it comes to Afghanistan, compared to the perceived legitimacy of the Karzai government, its ability to develop effective institutions, and the strategic stance of the Pakistani intelligence service—all of which get exactly zero attention in this column—the president’s progress toward enlightenment is a minor issue indeed. Still, Cohen plows ahead:

This is the president we now have: He inspires lots of affection but not a lot of awe. It is the latter, though, that matters most in international affairs, where the greatest and most gut-wrenching tests await Obama.

Again: no. “Awe” is not what matters most in international affairs. Interests matter. Alliances and coalitions matter. Power, in its various and sundry forms, matters. Heck, even chance matters. Awe, not so much. (The same can be said for shock.) Also: among the reasons that the war in Afghanistan is important, its narrative function as a “gut-wrenching test” in the president’s own personal bildungsroman ranks somewhere between “how else will we use all those surplus bullets?” and “that Kabul dateline looks great on page one.”

At this point, Cohen’s column digresses into a worst-case scenario for what might happen if the war is not won; an oddly bloody-minded statement that “If [Obama] remains consistent to his rhetoric of just seven weeks ago, he will send more troops to Afghanistan and more of them will die”; and a peculiar invocation of LBJ during the Vietnam War as an example of “presidential leadership” and “implacable confidence.” The stirring conclusion, though, returns to the central theme of foreign policy as personal development exercise. From the last two paragraphs:

Foreign policy realists question whether any effort in Afghanistan can succeed. Possibly they are right. The interventionists, if I may call them that, suggest the realists are being unrealistic — that Afghanistan matters and it matters much more than Iraq or, before that, Vietnam ever did and that we can prevail. Possibly they are right.

But the ultimate in realism is for the president to gauge himself and who he is: Does he have the stomach and commitment for what is likely to continue to be an unpopular war? Will he send additional troops, but hedge by not sending enough — so that the dying will be in vain? What does he believe, and will he ask Americans to die for it?

The idea that asking Americans to die for the president’s beliefs is an ennobling act was misplaced five years ago, under a different president and during a different war, and it remains so today. But what’s even more grating about this passage is its utter indifference to serious efforts to think about foreign policy—efforts that, whatever one may think of them, grapple with questions of war and peace. Possibly the realists are right. Possibly the interventionists are right. Who can say? Anyway, what really matters is that the president “gauge himself and who he is”!

For the last time: no.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.